bilingual parenting: an update at 18 months

Our daughter just turned eighteen months old. At her requisite doctor’s appointment, I was asked all kinds of questions to gage her development including whether she can say ten or more words at this point. I had read in several places that children who grow up with multiple languages take a little longer to process all the input and, as a result, are dubbed “late talkers.”*

But that doesn’t seem to be the case with us. As I was filling out the pediatrician’s questionnaire, I noted that C. can say far more than ten words. In fact, here are her words at eighteen months in English, Romanian, or “both” (words that function in either languages, such as “mama”):

English:

  • woof woof (every time she sees a dog)
  • bye bye
  • hi
  • ball
  • papa
  • book

Romanian:

  • da
  • nu
  • pa
  • nani

Words that work in both languages:

  • mama
  • meow/miau
  • moo/mu
  • caca
  • pee pee/pipi
  • “nana” for banana/banană

Although it appears that she has a broader vocabulary in English, when it comes to understanding and following commands, she responds more consistantly to Romanian. My personal theory is that she chooses the words that are shorter and easier to say even though she knows the name for a given object in both languages. For instance, she says “ball” even when I ask her to point to it/get it/look for it in Romanian. She understands that the Romanian word “minge” means ball but chooses to vocalize it as “ball” since it’s easier to make that one-syllable sound. Just like she says “da” rather than “yes,” since “dadada” is one of the first sounds babies seem to make and even English speaking kids tends to start with “yeah” before they can articulate “yes.” Similarly, I’m sure she’ll say “thank you” before she says “mulțumesc” because the latter is more difficult to pronounce.

As for her passive vocabulary, I’m constantly blown away by how much she understands. She can follow a host of commands, anything from retrieving items to straightening up and putting things in certain places, to answering questions about her needs/wants (ie, are you hungry? would you like some cheese? are you tired? can you bring me a book, etc). She can also point to and identify many animals when we’re reading books together. Since I’m usually reading or narrating in Romanian, I can vouch for the following in that language: dog, cat, mouse, duck, frog, crocodile, horse, cow, monkey, and chicken.

For the time being, I’m still at home with her for most of her days and I speak only Romanian with her. I use a lot more English around her (though not to her directly) when we’re with friends, which is often, and in the evenings when my husband’s home. In spite of that, her understanding of Romanian seems excellend to me (on par, if not superior to her understanding of English at this point). We are waiting listed for a daycare center and once she starts going there during the day, her Romanian exposure will be much less than what it is now. I am a little worried about that but there’s not much I can do to change that. I’m just hopeful that the foundation we’re setting now will continue to benefit her through her childhood, even as English takes on a dominant role. As long as she appreciates her background, where her maternal family originated, and how valuable it is to hold on to one’s heritage I will feel like my job here is done.

What about you? Are you raising your child(ren) in more than one culture and with more than one language? What obstacles or rewards have you encountered along the way? Have you been able to find childcare in the minority language? How do you juggle more than one language in your home?

For more voices on this conversation, see the bilingualism page on this blog for posts and interviews with many other multilingual and multicultural families!

**

*Update: Thank you to the wonderful commenters on this post and for the links to the following two articles that show that language delay in multilingual children is actually a myth and that multilingual children begin to speak just like their monolingual counterparts. That is, some start early, some just when expected, and some a little later:

“Does bilingualism cause language delay?”  Corey Heller. Multilingual Living, May 2010.

“Do Bilingual Children Know Fewer Words Than Monolinguals?” Annabelle Humanes. InCulture Parent, February 2013.

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{Bikes, a new baby, and the story of us.}
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16 Responses to bilingual parenting: an update at 18 months

  1. Laura says:

    Even though I’m not a mom, I love the posts on bilingual/multilingual parenting. One of the reasons why I’m interested in this topic besides sheer curiosity, is that my sister’s children are growing in a trilingual environment (Spanish, English, German). She recently reported with amusement that her two year old, for instance, occasionally names certain things in the three languages in one single utterance. As for bilingual children’s speech development delay, I recently came across a magazine article that singles it out as a myth. Perhaps you’ve seen it already, but here it is just in case: http://www.multilingualliving.com/2010/05/31/does-bilingualism-multilingualism-cause-language-delay/

  2. Burcu says:

    My baby is 6.5 months old. I talk to her in Turkish, my husband in Spanish, when we are together or with company, it is English or Spanish. She doesn’t show much reaction to any languages yet, just normal for her age. Given we live in a Spanish speaking country, it will be her dominant language. English will also be learned at school. When she is at that age, I plan to teach Turkish grammar as well. I want her to have written skills in addition to conversation skills. But, we have just started this, I am curious to see in which language her first word be :)

  3. Bex says:

    Thanks for the update, it is interesting to see how things are going!

  4. Miss Sarah says:

    You seem to be having more success than me (probably because you’re way more consistent). The other day I asked Dexter to turn around and look at somebody in the face when he says “hello,” and then we went over and hugged a relative stranger.

    Humph.

    S

    • simplybike says:

      Ha! But the great stories you’ll have…!

      • Maxine says:

        has posted a ceonmmt:some homeless in cork are absolutly abusing of the system, there’s one on the bridge opposite the bus station who has a mobile phone !!! and he spends all day sitting there and look around, all homeless are smoking strange 6.35 for 20fagsabout romanians you’ll see some of them with really nice cars and shopping at Mark&Spencer i give money to jugglers and musicians, at least it’s like an exchangei like your way of seeing cork by the way, good luck and carry on

  5. Annabelle says:

    How lovely to see that she is doing great. May I add more dispelling the myth of bilingual children speaking later than monolinguals? As you rightly did, counting both languages is extremely important. Check out this recent article: http://www.incultureparent.com/2013/02/do-bilingual-children-know-less-words-than-monolinguals/

  6. Ruth says:

    I have been trying to speak French at home with my baby but I find it is up and down in terms of the amount I end up speaking. When I am tired, I definitely speak more English because even though I’m pretty fluent in French, my baby vocabulary is much more limited in French than in English – lately, I haven’t been speaking much French and I regret it. I really would like to speak more but I need prompts and reminders and resources. It’s hard to do alone, I find – I wish my husband’s French were better but it’s pretty rudimentary.

    • simplybike says:

      Ruth – have you tried getting resources such a baby books, CDs, etc in French? our local public library has a pretty good selection of foreign kids books. They have some great German ones that I’ve checked out. I bet having something to turn to that is already in “baby language” could make things easier. We also have a Russian story time at the public library and a friend and I are going to start doing a German story time once a month. Have you tried looking for anything like that in French where you live? You might even meet other French-speaking parents there which might make for a great source of encouragement and support. Courage! N’arretes pas!

  7. B. says:

    Thanks for the update! I had also heard that multilingual-late talking was a myth – the myth that toddler sign-language delays infant development has also been proven false. Based on my own personal experience with the latter, I think that toddlers are interested communicating the quickest way possible, but they are also interested in practicing sounds, so they’ll start speaking the words that come easiest first, even if they have far greater receptive vocabulary of a language/languages (including sign language). What will be interesting is to see how she starts to sort the two out once she speaks in sentences! A lot of the kids at our bilingual daycare switch languages half way through.

    • Antonia says:

      we need to get together and have a long talk about eyervthing :)@Pavla: let me guess: was your mother the one who made you rearrange your wardrobe? :P As for the book, I’m waiting for you to visit us and bring it with you >:D

  8. Christina says:

    It’s interesting to read how this is progressing for your daughter. One of my girlfriends has her daughter in a language immersion program at one of our public schools. Half the day is done in English, the other half in Spanish. I’m very keen to see how it plays out for her child over the years! My child knows words in German but English is still her main language. I don’t know if we’ll ever get to full fluency in German *sigh*. Now that we are full time school her whole day is spent in English, then we have a lot of homework, it all becomes exhausting. I try to stick the German in here and there with every day conversation. She is starting to learn a little Korean now thanks to TaeKwonDo class :)

  9. PK Read says:

    Hi – Just wanted to put in my two cents, for what it’s worth. Having raised a child in a bilingual household (American English & German) in a third-language country (France), my main comment would be that consistency and commitment trump all else. We spent the first 12 years of our daughter’s life with me speaking and accepting only English from her, my husband speaking and accepting only German. She grew up in a French school. Now, it makes a huge difference that as parents, we were fluent in our partner’s language – so whatever language was being spoken, the message would be understood by both of us.
    Since we moved to France just after she was born, we all three learned French together. Needless to say, hers is native and fluent, ours is less than that on both counts. But still – we were quite strict about the language rules and they could only be bent in cases of emergency. A scraped knee, for example, or a visiting monolingual grandparent. The same went for books read to her – me always in English, her father only in German.
    She is off at college now, and in retrospect, I feel like the method we used worked well for all concerned. The only time I noticed a lag in speaking was when she started French preschool and stopped talking much for a few weeks until her French started to bud. After that she was the proverbial waterfall, trilingually, able switch between each one with ease.
    Now that she’s a young adult, we use mostly English – but I admit to a familial language tangle from time to time that would be hard to penetrate unless you spoke all three tongues.

  10. Mario says:

    Hello!

    I’m from Brazil and here my 2yo son is growing learning English and Portuguese. It is not easy. Sometimes some people say you shouldn’t do this. Sometimes you’re not sure if the environment is OK.

    Also, bilingual schools here are very expensive and in general the teachers aren’t native.

    I’d like to invite you to nnsparents.com. It’s a community for people like us to share experiences and doubts and also, for a blogger like you, there is a special place where you can promote your posts.

    See ya

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